Daniel Larison

Nonsense

Besides being paranoid, the idea that McCain’s genuinely weak “Celeb” ad draws from Triumph of the Will is remarkable for something else: its implicit contempt for modern Germans.  It is not much better than the pro-war German-bashing that took place during 2002-03 when war supporters frequently complained that the Germans had lost their former enthusiasm for conflict.  Both treat Germans in an essentialist way and try to reduce them to the most cartoonish stereotypes, as if a cheering throng of Germans in Berlin, c. 2008, must necessarily conjure up associations with Nazi rallies.  To assume this says more about the critics of the ad than about the people who made it.  As for the notion that the images from the ad resemble the techniques of Riefenstahl, one might as well accuse the television news directors who covered the event of imputing Hitlerism to Obama, since the footage and camera angles are all taken from the news broadcasts of the speech.  Obama supporters haven’t been this good at embarrassing their candidate with hysterical commentary since Orlando Patterson felt compelled to compare Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad to Birth of a Nation.      

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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Pakistan And The ISI

Despite its great importance for U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the region, the failed, rather clumsy attempt by the Pakistani civilian government to rein in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and place it under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior has not received nearly as much comment as it should.  Coming in the wake of the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul earlier this month, which was backed by elements within the ISI (detailed in the 7/28 TAC print edition), and the recent coordinated bombings in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, both the issuing and the reversal of the administrative order are particularly ominous.  Having attempted to assert control and been rebuffed under pressure from the military, the civilian government has shown its limitations and exposed itself to a backlash from the same forces that are trying to foment disorder in Afghanistan and India.  The inability of Gilani’s government to control the ISI is at the heart of the ongoing threat to the security of Afghanistan and the unreliability of Pakistan as an effective ally. 

In The Times of India, Prof. Sumit Ganguly of Indiana-Bloomington describes the extent of the problem:

The Pakistani military having wielded decades of political power has weakened every other institution within the Pakistani state. In aggrandising its extraordinary prerogatives from Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan to Zia-ul-Haq and most recently, Pervez Musharraf, it has used the ISI to serve a variety of political ends well beyond the tasks of espionage and counter-intelligence. Consequently, any civilian regime hoping to make the organisation more accountable will first have to think about how best to limit the privileges of the Pakistani army.

Until they can devise some institutional means to make the army more accountable to civilian authority, any attempts to control the activities of the ISI will not only be futile but dangerous.

The situation also calls for a reassessment of U.S. policies that disregard Pakistani sovereignty, whether they are advanced by President Bush or Sen. Obama, not least since PM Gilani has already declared this unacceptable.  Any association of his government with compromises of Pakistani sovereignty will further undermine civilian rule.  The recent attacks against Indian interests should also cause us to remember that the Pakistani military itself, and not simply rogue elements in the ISI, have been diverting American military aid to building up its conventional forces against India.  If the Pakistani military continues to use U.S. support in this way and if elements within the ISI continue to exploit the “war on terror” to pursue an anti-Indian agenda at the expense of U.S. interests, Washington will need to reconsider the level of military aid our government provides and Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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Political Eating

Not enough has been said about John Schwenkler‘s fine TAC essay on culinary conservatism, and unfortunately too much of what has been said has been ridiculous, so it is gratifying to see my Scene colleague Alan Jacobs taking up the subject in this first of two posts.  Before I say anything more about the essay itself, there is something that needs to be addressed whenever we try to discuss the relationship between food culture and philosophical and political persuasions.  Something that culinary conservatives and their good friends the “crunchy” cons and agrarians generally take for granted, as John notes in his essay, is that eating is a political act. 

This scandalizes and terrifies many modern conservatives because they seem to have a limited or debased understanding of what it means to say that something is a political act, and they tend to associate it for the most part with the government and the business of electioneering and passing legislation.  Were you to say that there is so much more to the life of a community, ta politika, than its government, laws and elections, these same conservatives would agree wholeheartedly and would probably make a point of saying admiringly that most people who would call themselves conservatives today are not activists and are concerned mostly with their families and churches.  Their conservative politics derives not from movement boosterism or extensive familiarity with the texts of the postwar American conservative canon, but from their habits and the virtues they try to cultivate in their own lives.  If you pressed these conservatives a bit more, they would acknowledge that it is better for families to eat together for many reasons, and many would recognize the integrative role that shared meals at religious celebrations have.  Some would even allow that it matters that the Eucharist is a re-enactment, or at the very least a commemoration, of the Lord’s last meal on earth.  Even so, to then say that it matters in some important way what they eat, where it comes from or how the animals and soil that provide them sustenance are treated is usually to lose much of their interest.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the language of unfettered desire and autonomy crops up: “I want what I want, and who are you to say otherwise?”  At least with many libertarians, this is to be expected, but it is a strange reflex for those who are supposed to prize restraint and wisdom. 

To say that eating is a political act worries conservatives because many seem to cling, oddly enough, to an old liberal conception of private, personal life that they wish to preserve free from outside interference, including ultimately the “interference” of neighbors, relatives and local community.  Where social conservatives are often keenly aware of the effects that individual choices concerning marriage, child-bearing and child-rearing have on society as a whole, there often seems to be a strange disconnect when it comes to eating, as if an act that ties us into an elaborate web of economic relationships has no greater significance and no other implications other than providing nourishment.  It is one kind of activity, perhaps the only kind, where many conservatives act as if the consequences of personal choices do not extend beyond the front door.

At the same time, eating as a political act is nonetheless also a question of how we are governed, whom we choose to empower and how we choose to govern ourselves.  As John says:

“Eating is an agricultural act,” writes Wendell Berry. But Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini argues that it is also a political one—a deed no less significant than the ways we cast our votes. Hence even the smallest acts of resistance to the hegemony of the present system, where corporate representatives and industry-funded scientists at public universities collaborate with government officials on regulatory policies and nutritional guidelines, are crucial steps in recovering local culture and reconstituting our “little platoons.” This will nurture the ability to govern—or resist being governed.

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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The Election In Miniature

The campaign controversy of the moment seems to be whether McCain has been telling lies about his opponent, with the additional accusation from the opposing camp that he is also engaged in race-baiting.  Of course, he is telling lies, and he isn’t engaged in race-baiting, but in this bizarre election cycle you can be sure that he will be rewarded or at least forgiven for the former and then punished for something that he isn’t doing.  This is exactly what happened during the primaries when McCain lied about Romney’s views on the war and Obama’s campaign and supporters denounced the Clintons for exploiting racism, and it is all happening again just as it did earlier in the year.  It is happening again mainly because this is how the two campaigns seem to operate when they are in closely-contested elections, which means we will continue to see more of this until November.

Trivial as they seem, these episodes sum up both campaigns and the media’s treatment of both remarkably well.  As he did in the primaries, McCain is simply making things up about his opponent’s positions and actions, and just as his campaign did during the primary fight against Clinton Obama and his supporters are pushing fantastic claims that McCain is exploiting racism.  (As with Clinton, McCain may be benefiting from prejudice, but attempts to show that they are actively exploiting it have been laughably weak.)  Remember the memo the Obama campaign circulated documenting the instances of how the Clintons allegedly politicized racism?  Then as now, the things that have provoked criticism have typically been entirely or mostly unrelated to race, and even when there is some small connection it requires hysteria and hypersensitivity to find something malevolent in that connection.  This line of attack on Obama’s opponents is not a new one, but the Obama campaign may be making a serious mistake in assuming that this attack will work as well in the general election as it did in the Democratic primary.  Regardless, it will receive more attention and gain more traction in the press on the assumption that they have been using all year long, which is that whatever race-baiting the Clintons were supposedly employing, the GOP would use it even more extensively. 

Back in January, the media criticized McCain for his lies about Romney, but ultimately forgave him on the twisted grounds that he doesn’t enjoy lying, and so he remained their hero.  The same will happen concerning McCain’s lies about Obama.  Meanwhile, McCain will suffer more damage from sustained media criticism that he is supposedly trafficking in racist tropes, despite the self-evident absurdity of the charge.  The phony controversy about the alleged racism in McCain’s horrible ads will distract attention from their insipid quality, but it will still generally work to McCain’s detriment if journalists accept the idea that McCain’s campaign is trying to promote or use racism in the election.  If their response to the accusations against the Clintons is any indication, many will accept this idea, and Obama will profit from this sort of scurrilous charge.  One thing seems likely: as I guessed a few months ago, the election will turn heavily on the biography and character of the candidates, and it will therefore be one of the more divisive and unpleasant general election campaigns we have experienced. 

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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Millennial Surprise

Over the course of the last few months, Rasmussen has been tracking attitudes about voting for a black candidate for President.  What they have been finding is that the public is gradually becoming more willing to support such a candidate, but what is most striking in the three surveys they have done is how constant and relatively great the unwillingness to support a black candidate has been in the age group you probably least expect.  According to the three surveys, 18-29 year olds are now relatively less willing to support a black candidate than voters from other age groups.  While resistance to supporting a black candidate has dropped in every other age group since February, and overall stands at just 8%, it remains basically unchanged among the youngest voters. 

While older generations report slightly increased unwillingness among friends, family and co-workers (which is the pollster’s way of trying to get around respondents who self-censor), approximately one-fifth (22%) of 18-29 year olds state their own unwillingness to vote for a black presidential candidate.  When asked about the willingness of friends, family and co-workers, the figure for “no” rises to 31%, which is the largest percentage in any age group.  Older voters will tend to say they are less sure about the attitudes of friends and family, but there is evidence of more explicit resistance among 18-29 year olds in both responses.   

Of course, roughly three-quarters of this group say that they are willing, and it is among these young voters that Obama has drawn many of his most enthusiastic supporters.  Even so, what we seem to be seeing is that unwillingness to support a black candidate is actually much stronger and more enduring among young voters, who are much more likely now to say this openly.  This would seem to undermine conventional narratives that ”Millennials” are less concerned about matters of race than their elders, and it may be that the greater diversity of Millennials is a cause of this.

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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The Race To The Bottom (Or The Middle)

It never ceases to amaze me that the convergence of major candidates on some of the most important questions of policy can be described as evidence of so-called post-partisanship.  Gerald Seib writes today:

And clearly some of that is going on. But in this election year, the movement has deeper meaning.

These are two candidates whose histories suggest a commitment to break away from the partisanship that has helped gridlock Washington.

In the wake of the PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq, the Protect America Act (and the FISA Amendments Act) and the Military Commissions Act, famous bipartisan achievements all, you might think that there would be a powerful desire for more gridlock and partisanship.  After eight years of unchecked executive abuses and bipartisan collaboration in illegal power grabs, you might suppose that less cooperation across the aisle would be in order.  What insiders and journalists complain about when they refer to gridlock are the glimmers of representative government, as different constituencies and interests compete with one another for limited resources and attempt to thwart contrary interests, and for the most part when there are great “bipartisan” pieces of legislation passed by Congress this means that both houses actively ignored or compromised the interests of their constituents.  Some of this dealmaking is an unavoidable part of the system, but a political culture that raises bipartisanship up as some sort of ideal is also responsible for fashioning the unrepresentative Washington consensus on national security, trade, immigration and foreign policy, among other things. 

For that matter, there is nothing post-partisan about competitors in an election blurring the differences between them.  If anything, the fewer the substantive differences there are the more partisan the election becomes, as the election then truly has nothing whatever to do with policy debate and turns entirely on Red Team/Blue Team competition.  In a thoughtful post on arguments for and against supporting Obama, Daniel Koffler acknowledges this tribalism and embraces the idea:

Political affiliation is very little above and beyond tribal affiliation, as Jeffrey Friedman taught me. It’s extremely difficult, no matter how widely one reads or travels, to break free of the partisan commitments of one’s parents. 

In Koffler’s case, this means an instinctive preference for the Democratic candidate.  Koffler is no doubt right that this is often the case, which makes for depressing commentary on the state of representative government.  It must say something about American culture, and probably nothing very flattering, that there seems to be a greater incidence of Americans who break with the religious affiliations of their parents than with their parents’ partisan affiliation.  We seem to be disturbingly emancipated from the constraints of religious tradition, but in practice we seem to fall down in awe before the altar of party loyalty.  On another occasion, I may discuss why a sane society would want the exact opposite to be true.          

There are different degrees of enthusiasm for one’s team, ranging from the devotion of a real fan to the betting interest of the cynical observer, but there is great pressure pushing the voter towards or away from one of the major teams.  According to the mantras from the remedial civics instructors in our media, you are, of course, free to vote for anyone, but you ought not throw your vote away.  It would be in bad taste, for one thing, and rather embarrassing to admit–a bit like being a Tampa Bay Rays fan prior to this year–so it is much better to jump on the bandwagon of one of the well-known teams.  Of course, one of the fundamental reasons why alternative parties languish in obscurity is that they are poorly known, and they are poorly known because few people think it worthwhile to build up additional political parties to represent a greater variety of interests.  The major parties retain their enormous institutional and legal advantages because no one ever attempts to introduce meaningful competition into the system, and the rationale for not making the effort is that we really have only two options–and indeed, we will continue forever to have only two options so long as the attitude that we must resign ourselves to one of the two prevails among all those who know both options to be unsuitable.

There is something strange about the way that unenthusiastic McCain and Obama supporters rationalize voting for their respective candidates.  They do not really endorse most of the candidate’s views, or they have grave reservations, but they judge the candidate not so much by his merits but by his opponent’s greater flaws.  One wonders, though, how far down the candidate would have to go before he would make himself simply unacceptable.  Does he need to become even more appalling than the opponent, or is there some bare minimum threshold that he has to fall below before it becomes unthinkable to lend him any support?   

As John Schwenkler notes in the current cycle, the standard that Obama has to pass, that of being preferable to John McCain, is so low that it isn’t any challenge at all.  The question of whether the candidate would actually represent your interests is never asked, as if to acknowledge tacitly that the possibility of representation is so remote that the question is useless or outmoded. 

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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Consumer Welfare

At the TAC main blog, Clark Stooksbury points us to this gem from Limbaugh:

How does it make you feel that Zhang Linsen has a big Hummer with nine speakers blaring as he pulls out into a four-lane road with so much smog he basically can’t see the car in front of him, and you are trading in all of your cars and trying to go out and find basically a lawn mower?

Actually, it makes me feel relieved that I don’t live in smog-infested cities where marathoners collapse and die because of the pollution.  Limbaugh offers here the absurd spectacle of “conservatism” as the embrace of endless consumption and degradation of nature, and really what this reveals is a desire to belong to something like a pink subsidy state (a modified version of what James has called the pink police state).  The implication here seems to be that if the market can no longer accommodate sufficient levels of consumption, the state should come in to subsidize that consumption and over-consumption, but above all it is a declaration that egregiously conspicuous consumption has something to do with national status and power.  Of course, if you were to suggest to a mainstream conservative that support for consumerism is a common or accepted view among them, you would be immediately denounced as a closet socialist who wants to impoverish everyone, unlike all those high-minded economic conservatives who just happen to defend all forms of consumption out of respect for freedom.

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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Loyalty

Glenn Greenwald has a pointed, smart post about the responses to his call to oust Blue Dog Democrats from the party.  One of the observations he made that applies equally well to the mentality in both parties was this:

Blind, uncritical allegiance to one’s Party — and to all of its officials — is the defining attribute of a tolerant, enlightened, and savvy progressive, and is the very heart of a healthy democracy. Those who diverge from absolute Party loyalty are Stalinists.

Replace “tolerant, enlightened and savvy progressive” with “prudent, wise and loyal conservative” and you might just as easily be talking about the experience of conservatives in the Bush Era.  Something that the defenders of party loyalty seem never to be able to grasp is that loyalty is a mutual obligation.  It is not only something that supporters are supposed to give to their party, but it is something that party leaders owe to the people who put them and keep them in their positions.  Bizarrely, it is those on the left who most want to pursue a real progressive agenda who are criticized for imitating the sort of lock-step partisan loyalty to political leadership that typified the Bush years, while those who are content to enable and collaborate in the worst abuses of the administration are the pragmatic and reasonable ones.  This is the absurd, imaginary world in which Ron Paul and Russ Feingold are extremists and Joe Lieberman and John McCain are “centrists”–no wonder the arguments defending that world make no sense.       

What is especially strange about the conventional wisdom Greenwald is attacking is the idea that being antiwar hurts Democratic candidates in the country at large.  Nancy Boyda of KS-02 is allegedly one of the most vulnerable first-term Democratic House members and this is supposedly because of her opposition to the “surge,” yet she has high approval ratings and a good chance of being re-elected in what has normally been a fairly reliable Republican district until two years ago.  Both Travis Childers and Don Cazayoux campaigned and won as antiwar Democrats in the Deep South.  The national Democratic leadership continues to cower and refuses to pressure the administration on the war, and in their defense you will hear arguments about the need to protect conservative Democratic candidates in competitive districts.  However, when it comes to the Iraq war the problem is not so much Blue Dogs who are worried about their re-election as it is a party leadership worried about placating Washington establishment opinion. 

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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Obama And Globalism

The most remarkable part of Rich Lowry’s column today was this line:

Berlin at times sounded as much like Obama’s coming-out party as the candidate of a transnational progressivism — in which global norms are more important than sovereign nations — as his audition as commander-in-chief.

What struck me about this passage was its implicit pretense that McCain and the administration Lowry et al. have supported dutifully for years are not similarly transnational.  For reasons I outlined yesterday, Republicans are able to use nationalist language and symbolism to their advantage, but to the extent that “transnational progressivism” is defined by endorsing the idea that “global norms are more important than sovereign nations” most of the leadership of both parties, including the current Republican nominee, can be described in the same terms. 

The illegal war against Yugoslavia in 1999 had the pretext of invoking human rights and prevention of genocide, and the illegal invasion of Iraq was technically based on the implementation of old U.N. Security Council resolutions.  Global norms and global governance, such as they were, took precedence over state sovereignty, and they both obviously had the support of John McCain.  That is not the same as saying that these were the real reasons for these wars, but the public justifcation for both was essentially that “global norms are more important than sovereign nations.”  What Lowry’s column does is to remind us of just how conventional and established Obama’s sort of foreign policy is, and why it is going to represent very little in the way of change from the status quo.  Far from being the first transnational President, Obama will simply be continuing the bipartisan foreign policy consensus according to which the sovereignty of other states can be compromised at any time in the name of “global norms” and hegemonic interests.

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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A Surge Of Distortions

Speaking of the “surge,” I heartily recommend my TAC colleague Kelley Vlahos’ post on the “surge”-as-Republican loyalty test, but I would just add that there is nothing terribly new about this test.  From the moment that the plan was announced, it became an article of faith among the tiresome enforcers of movement and party purity that any elected Republican who expressed any doubts or qualifications of support, no matter what they were, were to be denounced and targeted for primary challenges.  Hugh Hewitt was only the most vocal and obnoxious of the movement conservatives who insisted on applying this strangest of litmus tests in the wake of the ’06 electoral debacle in an effort to make the GOP more or less unequivocally a party identified with the Iraq war and with nothing else

Back then, even such reliable pro-war Senators as John Warner and Sam Brownback were chastised for advocating surrender, and it was during this phase when Chuck Hagel (who had voted to authorize the war and had kept his complaints about the war muted until the midterms) was declared to be persona non grata at the White House.  Even Romney’s modest wait-and-see approach for most of 2007 was turned into a liability for him on the eve of the Florida primary, when McCain shamelessly lied about what Romney’s position had been.  Something that I think most analysts of the recent debate over the “surge” have missed is why McCain is sticking so doggedly to arguing over who was right a year and a half ago: it was his use of the “surge” to break Romney in the primaries that paved the way for his nomination, and I expect that he believes that he can ride this issue all the way through the general election by using it just as unscrupulously against Obama as he did against his main primary rival.  The press will allow this to happen, because it is now commonly accepted wisdom that “McCain was right about the surge,” which somehow gives him license to distort his opponents’ views while officially retaining credibility on matters of national security.   

Cross-posted at The Daily Dish

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